The ceremony was opened by 2,008 drummers conducting a light show
The 2008 Olympic Games were launched at a dazzling ceremony in Beijing, as athletes from more than 200 countries gathered in the Bird's Nest stadium.
Drums, a light show and pyrotechnics began the four-hour ceremony - 29 sets of fireworks, representing each edition of the modern Games, lit up Beijing.
Mark Foster led the British contingent into the arena, and 7ft 6in basketball star Yao Ming carried the Chinese flag.
Li Ning, 1984 gold medallist, lit the Olympic cauldron to close the ceremony.
Li, who won three gymnastics gold medals in Los Angeles, was hoisted to the roof of the stadium by wires.
He completed a lap of the arena, suspended in mid-air, before igniting a jet of flame to light the torch tower.
Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, declared the Games open in front of an audience of more than 80 world leaders and royals, including US President George W. Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, congratulated the people of Beijing in his opening speech.
"For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world's athletes to Beijing," he said.
"Tonight that dream comes true. May these Olympic Games bring you joy, hope and pride."
Rogge called on athletes at the Games to "reject doping and cheating" and Chinese table tennis star Zhang Yining took the athletes' oath on behalf of the assembled competitors.
The initial firework display followed a countdown initiated by exactly 2,008 percussionists using illuminated drums.
Mark Foster carried the flag for Team GB
A further 15,000 musicians, acrobats and trapeze artists then distilled 5,000 years of Chinese history into 50 minutes of intricately choreographed, beautifully lit sequences.
Giant, illuminated Olympic rings and enormous pillars rose up from the floor of the stadium, followed by a piano duet performed by a five-year-old girl and famed Chinese pianist, Lang Lang.
In keeping with tradition, Greece - Olympic founders and hosts of the first modern Games - led the 204 competing nations into the arena.
China's 639 athletes entered last, behind towering flag-bearer Yao, to a thunderous reception from the Bird's Nest crowd.
The procession of athletes took place with nations appearing according to the number of brush strokes required to write each country's name in Chinese.
Team GB therefore became the 115th team to enter the arena, with Australia - traditionally third into the arena by alphabetical order - appearing third last.
However, Brunei did not feature, having missed the deadline to register their athletes for the ceremony.
Seventeen of the 28 sports feature action on Saturday, with the Games running until 24 August.
When events begin, judo player Craig Fallon will have the chance to win Great Britain's first medal of the Games.
China's Du Li could win the first gold for the host country when she defends her title in the women's 10m air rifle.
And American swimming star Michael Phelps begins his quest to win an unprecedented eight Olympic golds in a single Games as he competes in the heats of the 400m individual medley.
A number of British athletes missed Friday's ceremony in order to prepare for events on Saturday and Sunday.
"We cannot march as it goes on until very late," GB rower Frances Houghton told BBC Sport. "It would be like going out for a big night out two days before racing."
The Bird's Nest stadium exploded into life with a spectacular firework display
Britain's track and field athletes were absent from the ceremony as they are yet to travel to Beijing from the team's Macau training camp.
A giant plasma screen enveloping the roof of the stadium produced a stunning virtual torrent of water but fears of rain spoiling the ceremony proved unfounded.
Despite a smoggy start to the day, visibility at the Bird's Nest improved in the hours before the event began.
A capacity crowd of just over 90,000 packed into the famous stadium in the heart of the Olympic Green to watch Chinese film director Zhang Yimou's opening ceremony.
China has come under close scrutiny since Beijing was chosen in 2001 to host the Olympics. Demonstrations dogged the Olympic torch relay during its journey around the world.
China's treatment of Tibet has been the subject of much of the controversy.
Beijing has always promised to make improvements in human rights, media freedoms and the provision of health and education.
There had been a security crackdown across Beijing in advance of the high-profile event, with thousands of armed police deployed and areas of the city centre locked down.
Many of the city's 17m residents stayed at home after the Beijing authorities declared a public holiday to mark the auspicious start at 8pm (1300 BST) on 08/08/08 - the number eight is very lucky in China.